Monday, March 3, 2008

Bench Battle

posted by Jon

The Seattle Mariners have a lot of players, young and old, competing for a precious few spots on the big league bench this spring. Willie Bloomquist, Seattle's baseball player version of the Swiss Army Knife, is a lock on this team after providing 5+ years of versatility and speed. He will be joined by catcher Jaime Burke, a veteran of the game who hit .301 and coaxed Seattle pitchers to lower ERAs last season.

The organization puzzled team followers by signing veteran utilityman Miguel Cairo to a guaranteed major league contract on January 8th. Cairo brings veteran leadership and the ability to play all four infield positions to the table, and not a lot else. He's a career .267 hitter with no power and no speed. Bringing him in on a minor league deal would have been fine, but no one has been able to make sense of the acquisition. Many fans have been saying that Cairo will be cut, but the bottom line is that he's on a guaranteed contract and he was brought on to fill a bench spot, not to compete. There is only one scenario that I can think of in which Cairo will be cut, and I'll touch on that in just a little bit.

With Bloomquist, Burke and Cairo on board, that leaves one spot left (assuming Seattle goes with a 7-man bullpen). Manager John McLaren has already said that the final spot will be taken by an outfielder, preferably of the right-handed variety. "We're looking for a right-handed hitting type that can complement Wilkerson in the outfield or to give one of the left-handed hitting outfielders a rest," McLaren said at the end of February, probably ruling out former starting centerfielder Jeremy Reed and non-roster invitee Bronson Sardinha.

That leaves Wladimir Balentien, Charlton Jimerson and Mike Morse as the most obvious choices. Earlier in Spring Training I thought that Balentien had a great chance at being Brad Wilkerson's platoon partner in right field, based on info we received in our Q&A with Shannon Drayer and some personal research. This scenario no longer seems destined to happen, as McLaren reportedly said in mid-February that he views Wilkerson as an everyday player. He acknowledged that it is still possibly, just unlikely. Balentien has been making his case this spring, hitting .500 with a double, 2 homers and 3 RBI in 6 at bats so far. Balentien will not make the team as a fourth outfielder, as he needs regular at bats at this point in his career. He will either platoon or start the year in AAA.

Charlton Jimerson has some great tools that would fit nicely on the Mariner bench. He can easily play all three outfield positions, has great speed and base stealing ability, and has some good pop in his bat as well. Jimerson's downside is his propensity to strikeout and inability to make contact, a problem that has kept him from becoming a big league star. He hasn't shown much improvement so far this spring, hitting .250 with 3 Ks in 8 at bats. In today's exhibition against the Cubs I watched him as he was at bat in the 9th with 1 out and the tying run on 3rd base. He fouled the first pitch back, swung right through a high-80s fastball down the middle, and struck out on a breaking ball two feet off the plate in the dirt; not gonna get it done. (Edit - 6:22 pm) Apparently Jimerson is out of options, so he could be lost to the waiver wire should he not crack the 25-man.

Mariner broadcaster Dave Simms called Mike Morse the favorite for the final bench spot in today's broadcast, and this certainly seems to be the case. Morse came into camp in great shape. He's noticeably bulkier, at least to me, and his offseason work with Raul Ibanez and other major leaguers seems to have paid off. Through Monday he is hitting a whopping .714 (5 for 7) with 5 RBIs. The power is still not showing, but word is that he's getting better at turning on the ball this spring. His one extra base hit so far, a double in today's ballgame, was a great example of that as he took it high off the left field fence. Unlike the other candidates, Morse is out of options and will have to clear waivers should he fail to make the team. The fear of losing him, his great performance thus far, along with his ability to play three infield and two outfield positions should make him Seattle's top choice to join Bloomquist, Burke and Cairo on the bench.

One wild card player for the remaining bench spot is veteran Greg Norton, who was signed to a minor league contract on February 13th. Norton can play first base and some outfield, but pinch hitting is his real forte. As I wrote earlier, this signing is similar to the acquisitions of Roberto Petagine and Dave Hansen in recent years. Unlike those two, I don't see Norton making the team over the young, athletic outfielders Seattle has to chose from. It's simply too crowded this year.

I listed Miguel Cairo as a lock on this bench, but I mentioned one scenario where he could be cut. In my opinion, the only way Cairo lands on the waiver wire or back in the free agent pool is if Jeff Clement wins the DH battle, pushing incumbent Jose Vidro to the bench. ''With his bat, he could DH,'' McLaren said, referring to Clement. ''We're very happy with Vidro as our DH and with Kenji as our catcher. But we like surprises, too.'' Surely Seattle doesn't want Vidro's option for 2009 to vest, so they should be open to benching Vidro if someone else can prove worthy of taking over. Clement will not be handed the job, however, and will have to impress in order to overcome a switch-hitter who posted a batting average of .314 last year. So far in six at bats he has two hits, a single and a double.

Should Vidro bump Cairo off the bench, Morse's infield versatility would certainly put him on the team.

If my observations and speculation prove correct, Seattle will have a bench consisting of Willie Bloomquist (INF/OF), Mike Morse (COF/CIF/SS), Jaime Burke (C), and either Miguel Cairo (INF/LF) or Jose Vidro (1B/2B). Thoughts?


Anonymous said...

That sounds about right to me.

I guess I don't get why they won't let Morrow go down to the minors and learn to be a starter, but yet they recognize the importance of getting Belantien and Clement ABs.

Cairo has some speed, doesn't he? He stole 10 bases last year or something. Still, I thought the point of having someone like Bloomquist who can play any position is that it allows you to carry a slugging pinch hitter who doesn't have to be a good fielder.

Anonymous said...

other than a WFB clone with less power, Cairo is no world beater. Doesn't Mike Morse add some speed to the bench as well?
Mac could use Morse's speed instead of Cairo's, and get a better bat to boot.

Anonymous said...

dude I still think Wlad will make the taeam as a starter he will stay on fire all spring!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Greyguy said...

(first anonymous guy here again, now with a name)

Morse has stolen 4 bases in 291 career abs, while being caught once. That doesn't look like blazing speed to me but I guess it's not far from Cairo's rate.

On the other hand, I'd rather have a hitter than a speed guy. You need a hit more often than you need a stolen base.

Cam and Kristy said...

So far so good this spring for Morse. He seems to be tearing it up right now. If he can continue those numbers through March, he will have a spot on the team.

Anonymous said...

Can someone explain why a Brad Wilkerson is a better option then Wlad in right? I know wlad has a better arm and stat wise I don't see anything great in wilkerson. Besides the fact that he is a left hander with experience. Wlad torched AAA last year why does he need to do it again? He also is beating up on everyone this spring. Dosn't Wilkerson make a better fit for the bench then WLAD?

I tried using the NAME/URL and that wouldnt work for me. . . . . .

greyguy said...

I think the only reason they favor Wilkerson over Wlad is that they're paying Wilkerson more money and Johnny Mac doesn't like rookies. The Mariners as a whole seem to think that young players are a scary crap shoot, nevermind that Wilkerson's health sort of makes him a crap shoot too.